Gov. Scott Walker deserves credit for finally acknowledging the state’s worsening problem with chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer, as evidenced by his five-point plan revealed May 13 at the Wisconsin Conservation Congress’s 82nd annual convention in Manitowoc.
Although uninspired, unoriginal and as helpful as water pistols at a wildfire, the plan at least renews efforts to learn something about CWD as it strengthens its grip on southern Wisconsin while spreading elsewhere.
During his 22-minute address, Walker also urged the Congress’ 360 delegates to help him seek scientific solutions for protecting the deer herd and Wisconsin’s hunting heritage. It’s good that Walker invites such help. He must listen to more voices than those who so poorly advised him the past five years.
Walker’s talk reinforced the fact he and his administration basically ignored CWD after taking office in January 2011. He clearly struggles to discuss CWD without notes, and even called the disease “CYD” five times during his talk, and declined to take questions afterward.
In three previous speeches at this annual event, Walker took questions twice. He left without taking questions during 2011’s Act 10 turmoil, but did take questions in 2012 and 2013.
Most puzzling, however, was Walker’s defense of his administration’s handling of CWD. He acknowledged that much more needs to be done, but noted that no state has tested more deer than Wisconsin’s 193,000-plus CWD samples, stressing, “It’s not like we’ve been sitting on the sidelines.”
True, but neither has the Walker Administration been quarterbacking an aggressive scientific game plan with the Department of Natural Resources, nor even cheerleading for one. Yes, Wisconsin has tested 193,787 whitetails the past 17 years, but only 27,190 tests (14 percent) were on Walker’s watch. Further, of the 3,138 CWD-infected deer detected so far, 1,568 (49.9 percent) were found during his administration, despite his party’s deliberate cuts in testing.
Bottom line, the CWD infection rate during Walker’s tenure has averaged 6 percent, compared to less than 1 percent when he took office.
If no one has shared those numbers with Gov. Walker, he should seriously question what DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, DNR Board member Greg Kazmierski, and deer-farming and Hunter’s Rights Coalition lobbyist Bob Welch have been telling him the past five years. And if Kazmierski’s handpicked “deer czar,” Dr. James Kroll, truly believes CWD isn’t worsening in Wisconsin, it’s time to disconnect the hotline to Texas. Their combined efforts to downplay CWD have hurt the governor.
Walker should also be questioning the anti-science agendas of people such as Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, who led the assault on the DNR’s science bureau, called spending on CWD testing a “boondoggle,” and helped eliminate earn-a-buck regulations, the best hunting-based tool we had for reducing overpopulated deer herds.
And although Walker has been misinformed by Kroll’s dismissals of spiking CWD rates, it’s Stepp’s DNR that keeps ignoring a vital Kroll recommendation: immediate scientific sampling and assessments when finding CWD outside its endemic region.
The agency waited months until autumn’s hunting season to collect additional samples when discovering CWD in Washburn County in 2012 and Portage County in 2013. More recently it didn’t scientifically collect samples to assess potential CWD exposures around a diseased captive herd Oneida County, and another in Eau Claire County involving escapes.
Therefore, if Walker seeks credibility for his newfound interest in CWD, he should keep Stepp, Kazmierski and Welch on the sidelines for this reassessment. After all, he told the Conservation Congress we need a bipartisan effort to tackle the challenge.
Let’s hope Walker considers assembling a bipartisan team of people with a scientific background, or respect for knowledge beyond their own beliefs – whether they hunt deer or not.
Perhaps he should appoint DNR Deputy Secretary Kurt Thiede as the team’s chairman, and ask Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, and Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, to work with Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau, and Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range to re-evaluate things.
They could start by reviewing Kroll’s 136-page Deer Trustee Report from June 2012, and the follow-up 130-page report from July 2013 in which “public action teams” submitted ideas for implementing Kroll’s recommendations. Stepp’s DNR has ignored much of both reports, especially the citizens’ CWD recommendations.
Walker should also stress that his five timid May 13 initiatives are only the starting point. With that in mind, here are more suggestions he should consider:
• Link the DNR’s impressive CWD web pages to the agency’s internet homepage.
• Implement Kroll’s recommendation for immediate systematic sampling around new CWD discoveries.
• Test a minimum of 20,000 deer annually for CWD, even if it means mandatory testing and in-person registration in areas being sampled. The average of 5,438 samples annually the past five years is unacceptable.
• Require the DNR, Department of Health Services, and Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to agree on one advisory and post it prominently on their websites and in hunting-regulation pamphlets: “Venison from deer killed in CWD-affected areas should not be eaten or shared with others until test results are found to be negative.”
• Ban all deer baiting and feeding statewide. Enough already.
• Work with the Legislature to restore “earn-a-buck” regulations as a management tool.
• Cut all funding for further predator-impact studies. Enough already. Instead, conduct long-term, intensive deer-population monitoring research in Iowa County to assess CWD and its impacts on the herd’s size/health.
• Experiment with rapid reduction of deer herds through sharpshooting and aggressive hunting programs to assess their impact on CWD.
• Provide grants to double-fence all private elk/deer farms to protect the animals inside and outside the confines.
Those are just a few bipartisan ideas for Gov. Walker, but he should realize this problem won’t fade anytime soon, no matter what steps he takes. By ignoring CWD the past 11/2 election cycles, his administration helped weave this issue into Wisconsin’s political fabric.